Abu Dhabi Science Festival – The Story of a Team Leader

by Zoë Gamble

In November 2013, I took off my science made simple hat, and travelled over 4,500 miles to work at Abu Dhabi Science Festival.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It’s hot, beautiful, and filled with lovely people. Before I went I’d heard horror stories about people being arrested for things like holding hands, so I wasn’t expecting openness, acceptance and lots of lingerie shops! If you’re interested in finding out more about the experience, read on.


Getting there

I began by applying for the post of ‘Team Leader’ with Edinburgh Science Festival. They’re the brains behind the operation, and for 3 years they’ve shipped over hoards of UK based science communicators to run workshops and train local students in science communication. On the day of the interview, I was performing Engineering for Life: From Cradle to Grave in London, so I had to call the Edinburgh team on Skype. After finishing my science made simple presentations, I got into my van and tried to find a quiet spot. I ended up parked in a residential area with my laptop propped up on the dashboard, performing science demos from the driver’s seat! It’s got to be the strangest place I’ve ever had an interview.

I managed to impress, and was soon flying up to Edinburgh for a day of training. We covered all sorts of things from how to act and what to wear, to training Emirati students, to the science content of the workshops. It ended in a trip to the pub, where we enjoyed socialising with the people we were to be working with for the next few weeks.

After the 7 hour flight from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi International Airport, we hopped on a coach to Yas Island, which was to be our home for the next 17 days. If you’re into racing you may have heard of Yas Island due to its famous F1 track. Personally, I was much more excited by the water park next door to the track!

The main part of the festival was taking place at the Du Forum, where an enormous blue tent had been erected on top of a car park. The air conditioning didn’t kick in fully until the second day, and having already reverted back to my winter coat in Cardiff, I was taken aback by how hot it actually was. Add that to a uniform of long-sleeved black tops and trousers and the conditions were tough!

The workshop

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Zoë’s team. Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

The workshop I was working on was ‘Build It’, which is run by Adam Selinger from the University of Wollongong. It’s a construction workshop for the over 5s, aimed at introducing children to the different things involved in making a house. You arrive at the workshop, and see a big unfinished frame of a house, hard hats, high visibility jackets, clipboards, tape measures, spirit levels, and everything you need to get building.

There are foam bricks, and foam mortar for building up the walls, roof tiles to be laid, carpets to be rolled out, floor tiles to go in the kitchen and bathroom, and more. You can follow the wires going though the walls to learn about the electricity supply, and pipes for the water. When you’ve had a go at everything, you’re challenged to make your own building – how high can you make it? What  different designs work well?

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Building! Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

The best thing about the workshop is the freedom it gives children. In schools the learning is usually much more prescriptive, with children being told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. After introducing the children to ‘Build It’, they are free to move around each part of the workshop as they wish, with helpful science communicators giving guidance and help where needed. If a child wants to carefully build up the walls correctly and isn’t into laying carpets; no problem. If a child is concentrating on making the different floor tiles tessellate and isn’t into building a roof; no problem. If a child wants to spend an hour checking walls are level and measuring them – no problem!


science made simple’s James Piercy had flown out to Abu Dhabi a few weeks before the festival to deliver initial science communication training. Then, we were given two days before the opening of the festival to further train three groups of local students to be science communicators, and run ‘Build It’. Our science communicators were mostly engineering students – very handy for a construction workshop!

We covered things such as how to use your voice when talking to a large group of children, using the right language, and of course the correct way to use the tools and build a house. Our house had a timber frame and sloping roofs, but, most houses in the UAE are built from concrete with flat roofs. So, we had a little joke with our science communicators who would tell the children that the house had been designed in the UK..where it rains a LOT, and people need sloping roofs so water doesn’t get in.

Days off

Each team leader was given two days off during the festival. On my first free day I went to Yas Water Park. My first cultural problem: if women aren’t allowed to show their shoulders or a bit of leg, what is one supposed to wear to a water park? It turns out that although women are expected to dress modestly in most public places, this excludes places like water parks or the beach.


Zoë sightseeing. Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)



Somewhere I did have to dress correctly though, was the Grand Central Mosque. This is a very impressive building indeed. Cover your hair, take off your shoes and experience the beautiful, warm tiled floors, and exquisite floral designs!



I also spent a pleasant morning browsing the shops in Abu Dhabi town centre. Shopping centres in Abu Dhabi are much the same as British ones. Many of the same shops were present, but I was surprised by the large number of lingerie shops!

One of the nicest things I did was visit the home of one of our local Emirati science communicators. He welcomed us warmly with Arabic coffee served in tiny cups, and introduced us to his family. We were then presented with a fantastic array of local cuisine. I even tried camel milk (never again! – although apparently it’s an acquired taste).

For anyone wondering about working at Abu Dhabi Sci Fest 2014, I highly recommend it. If you like kids, passing on science knowledge to others, and are up for an adventure, it’s for you!


Happy volunteers! Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

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